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Maastricht

Introduction

The ancient city of Maastricht - the most southern Dutch city [with its Roman roots] - would see a lot of dramatic events on the first day of the war. The main-bridges over the Maas [in the city of Maastricht itself] were some of the main targets in the German invasion plan. These three bridges were the St. Servaesbrug, Wilhelminabrug and the railway bridge to the north. It was considered imperative to take these bridges intact. The German 4th Tank Division - with its 343 tanks - was supposed to make use of these heavy river crossings.

The siege of the bridges at Maastricht was closely connected to the daring plan to raid the Belgian fortress Eben-Emael, only some clicks southwest of Maastricht. This fortress - considered a very important Belgian strong-hold - controlled a large part of the Albertcanal, Maas and adjacent four bridges. With this fortress intact the 4th Tank Division could end up in a very delicate situation.

The imperative significance of the Belgian fortress was the reason for the Germans to develop an integrated plan to take the fortress by surprise, together with the three bridges across the Albertcanal at Vroenhoven, Veldwezelt and Kanne. This task was given to a special battalion of the 7th Flieger Division [of which the main body would be dropped into the Fortress Holland]. A few dozen Fallschirmjäger would be landed in gliders right on top of the fortress. The would bring along a number of hollow charges that could upset the biggest of constructions. At the nearby bridges small task-forces, mainly formed by Fallschirmjäger too, would land in gliders and be later reinforced by parachute dropped airbornes. These obviously light forces would find themselves landing in a sector occupied by forces of a Belgian division and the more than 1,000 men inside the fortress. In order to be able to reinforce these light troops as soon as possible and ensure a firm crossing base along the Albertcanal, the seizure of the [intact] Maastricht bridges was imperative.

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The main traffic bridge in Maastricht (may 1940)

The Germans were well aware of the Dutch occupation of the bridges in Maastricht. They knew about the ruling instructions, the security measures and the exact locations where the charges had been placed. This intelligence information had been gathered by a considerable number of agents; some Dutch, some German [Maastricht had many German inhabitants]. The Germans designed a plan that basically comprised two components. The first represented a sabotage-action against each of the bridges. Specially trained raiders - dressed in civil cloths - would try to sabotage the charges and fuses. The second component we have already met numerous times: commando raids against the bridges by soldiers disguised as Dutch military or civil personnel, but this time in larger numbers. This task was designated to the Sonderverband Lt Hocke, which we already saw at Meerssenhove. In this instance these stealthy operating commando's would be assisted by another commando unit: Battalion zum Besonderen Verwendung 100 [Battalion for special missions]. It was equipped with some armoured vehicles and mobile FLAK and instructed to race to the bridges and assist the raiders. Directly after, they would try to reach the airbornes at the three bridges over the Albertcanal and Eben Emael.

On the Dutch side Maastricht had also enjoyed additional attention from the military planners. The Dutch were aware of the strategic importance of the city and particularly its bridges. The city defences were therefore quite strong [compared to the rest of the province]. Altogether a force of about 750 men defended the bridges and some designated strong-points. Of these 750 men about 200 were assigned in the border-area with Belgium. Two companies [300 men] formed the outer-defences of the city. They were under orders to deny first access to the invaders and then retreat. These outer-defences would defend barricades they had to set themselves. They had only two anti-tank guns at their disposal. In order to be certain that the city was sealed off from an instant invasion a second line was formed by a mere 100 men. The rest of the troops - about one company - had a permanent post on the westbank of the Maas and at the three bridges. They had a few 2 cm AT guns and four 7,5 cm AAA guns as heavier weapons.

The attack is on

When the going got tough the Germans first sent in the "civil teams" who had to sabotage the bridge-charges. Two of these groups were caught almost immediately. The third group had already arrived in Maastricht in the evening of the 9th. They had found shelter in a house of a German citizen in the city. Their target was the Wilhelminabrug. The group comprised a German NCO and six Dutch collaborators. Funny enough the men could not resist the temptation of alcohol during the long and anxious waiting period and in the end only the German and one of the Dutchmen were capable of action in the morning. Together they went to the bridge at 0330 hrs, pretending to be civil workers. But although they blended in a group of genuine workers, the Dutch guards spotted the two - probably due to nervous behaviour. Upon their arrest they resisted and the Dutchman ran off, meanwhile grabbing a pistol. A Dutch guard killed him with a well aimed rifle shot. All three sabotage actions had then failed.

The sluice complex at Borgharen - just north of Maastricht - was another water-works that could not be destroyed for obvious reasons. An infantry platoon was stationed at the complex itself. Close to the sluice one casemate with a machine gun could assist. In the early morning hours a patrol of six motorised infantry-men approached the eastern guard post. It was a recon party of the Hocke outfit. They were summoned to stop and four of them were taken prisoner. The other two escaped. The Dutch Lieutenant-commander was convinced that more would follow and ordered his men to be ready for more. Indeed two groups of soldiers - one on motorbikes the other on ordinary bicycles - soon appeared. The Dutch let them approach to within 50 m of their ambush and opened fire with two machineguns and all rifles. The Germans fled in all directions and were soon pinned down. But it didn't take long before German reinforcements arrived and the Dutch squad on the eastbank experienced an increasing pressure from the ever growing opposition.

The defenders tried to draw back to the sluice complex. That was a difficult move under the increasing German fire. The occupation of the sluice itself was able to resist the Germans, but the south-eastern squad - that in fact defended the whole northern entrance to Maastricht - gave in when their machinegun failed. The gap that then occured in the outer-defences of the city was quickly penetrated by the majority of the Germans that had agitated against the sluice. The raid against the sluice complex had failed, but an entrance to the Maastricht defences had been established. Nevertheless, the Germans had suffered considerable losses. Many reports speak of about 100 men dead and wounded, which seems quite exageratted though. The German General Melzer spoke of heavy losses: "Both units suffered very heavy losses, the bike-company in particular." The official German reports do not include all the KIA of this unit. Only 16 men were actually registered as KIA of zbV 100 in Maastricht, but that included the action at the railway bridge. Leutnant Hans-Joachim Hocke himself was amongst them [killed in the action at the railroad bridge].

Meanwhile the Battalion zum besonderen Verwendung 100 [BtlzbV100] had experienced some delays in its advance. Besides some road blocks that had to be removed, the AFV's and mechanized (FLAK) and AT guns had to fight their way through the suburb Rothem [northeast of Maastricht] before they reached the outer-defences at Mariënwaard. The Dutch defended a T-iron road-block at this location and a modern 4,7 cm anti-tank gun available to support. But unfortunately enough the platoon-leader wasn't fit for his duty. The man had forgotten to have the T-iron sealed (e.g. cut a wire) and he had taken out the anti-tank gun from its position in order for it to ... fire at airplanes! As a consequence of this irresponsible lack of leadership the German vehicles were able to proceed through the outer defences without any serious problem. And not only that. It had an epidemic effect too. The other posts saw the enemy soon appear in their rear.

The bulk of the 4th Tank Division had encountered resistance around Gulpen and this delay had costed them hours. Another column, that was instructed to advance against Maastricht from the south, was able to move forward quicker. They appeared in front of the outer-defences at the suburb Heugem at around 0545 hrs. Here the barricades had been sealed and locked as instructed. The defending unit was ordered to move back behind the Maas though, because it had become clear that the outer-defences had been penetrated elsewhere.

It was then up to the rear-guard of the outer-defences to slow down the German advance. The mechanised guns and armoured cars of BtlzbV100 rushed through the city on their way to the vital bridges. At the Akerstraat - close to the railway station - one of the groups of the rear-guard had taken position. They had the support of two 20 mm anti-tank rifles. When the first German armoured cars approached the defenders opened fire immediately. The German guns and machineguns opened up too. It was hell on earth for the defenders. Still the two anti-tank rifle crews managed to hit the first two armoured cars and probably a third. The crippled cars blocked the road for the upcoming cars. The Germans tried to evacuate the wounded crew-members from the hit vehicles. In the meantime more and more infantry and 3,7 cm anti-tank guns were deployed by the invaders. The sandbags of the two dozen defenders were smashed away one by one by the fierce German fire. The Germans were amazed that the massive number of 20 and 37 mm gun grenades and machinegun bullets had not yet eliminated the opposition. When the German infantry had nearly reached his position the commanding Dutch sergeant ordered an organised retreat. The squad safely reached the westbank of the Maas a little later. This formation had outdone itself.

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Bridge at Maastricht (may 1940)

The beautiful, ancient St.Servaesbrug - the taking of which the BtlzbV100 and the 4th Tank Division were aiming for - was blown up at 0600 hours, when the first armoured cars appeared in sight. Fifteen minutes later the Wilhelminabrug followed. The persistent German endeavours to seize these two important objectives intact had been in vain ...

The last object that the Germans wanted to seize in good working order was the railway bridge. With some timber modifications this would also be useful as a crossing point for tanks. A platoon of around 35 men defended this object, supported by one heavy machinegun, three light machineguns and two 2 cm anti-tank rifles. From the north they were confronted with the remainders of the Sonderverband Hocke [one remembers that these men found a hole in the defences at the sluice-complex at Borgharen]. The head of the column of cars and motorbikes was shot up by the Dutch anti-tank rifles and heavy machinegun. Especially the anti-tank rifles proved very effective in this engagement. The Germans jumped out of their cars and off their bikes and took shelter in a factory. Soon they tried to work their way forward towards the capital bridge. The Dutch defenders all evacuated to the westbank of the river and closed the iron gates across the track. The first Germans - accompanied by their leading officer Leutnant Hocke - climbed over the gates. Some fell from Dutch fire; others were able to reach the bridge. At that moment the burning fuse had reached the charges. The bridge sections sank into the river [0620 hours], taking a few of the Germans with them - including the Leutnant.

After the Maas bridges had been destroyed the remaining Dutch forces behind the Maas had only one task that remained: to withhold the enemy from crossing the Maas as long as possible.

At the south of Maastricht - at the Sint Pietersberg - five heavy and some light machinegun sprayed a German recon column of the 4th Tank Division. A number of soft vehicles - including a light armoured car - were destroyed. Due to this fire the Germans were unable to take care of the barricades that had been set on the westbank.

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Bridge at Maastricht (may 1940)

At the destroyed bridges in Maastricht some stray Dutch groups made German life miserable. The Dutch men had been divided over many strategic points and posted a sniper squad in the stone towers of the bridge. When the Germans boldly placed an anti-tank gun in front of the bridge, aimed at the adjacent St. Servaesbrug, the Dutch instantly killed the entire crew. A new crew shared the same fate. A small number of rubber boats tried to cross the Maas but were shot to pieces. Then the Germans retreated from this location.

At the destroyed railway bridge the heaviest fighting would be seen. The Sonderverband Hocke - or rather what had remained of it - received reinforcements from the German main-force that started to arrive. Two armoured cars tried to approach the eastbank but were immobilized in no time by the two anti-tank rifles. Also a light tank was put out of action by the AT rifles. The German losses were considerable. Then three armoured cars and a mechanized gun of the BtlzbV100 arrived at the scene [0745 hours]. The situation for the light Dutch infantry grew very delicate. Many defenders were killed or wounded by the German fire, and soon one of the two AT rifles was destroyed by a direct hit. The territorial headquarters were contacted to report the situation. From this contact it became clear that the Dutch resistance at Maastricht had been ordered to cease. What had happened?

Lieutenant-Colonel Govers - Territorial Commander of Limburg - had called a meeting at 0700 hours. The German battle-plans had been found on a German POW in the morning. All German units were mentioned in the plans and maps with directions had been part of the catch as well. It was clear that all bridges had been destroyed. It was also clear than an entire German Tank Division was deployed in South-Limburg. The TC had only two companies left under his command, without anti-tank guns or artillery. The ancient city of Maastricht - with all its cultural inheritage - should not suffer more than necessary, so he gathered. The outcome of the meeting was that all further opposition to the Germans in and around Maastricht [the last standing defences in Limburg] would be ceased. The TC himself went to the Wilhelminabrug under a white flag. Contact was established with German officers. At 0930 hours all Dutch troops in Maastricht and surroundings capitulated.

Balance

We shall briefly address the other events that were connected with the Maastricht bridges events.

The German airlanding party that surprised the Belgian force in Eben-Emael was very successful. The heavy guns of the fortress as well as some access-doors were blown up making use of a new phenomenon: "hollow charges" [a shaped charge in which the explosive chain is guided in such a convergent way that a maximum concentration of energy from red hot soft metal is aimed at a very small area. As such a large destructional power can be generated from a relatively light charge]. The airbornes [70 men] only had to guard the entrances after the guns had been destroyed.

The German airborne actions at the bridges of Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt [both on the border with Holland] were successful, although costly. The bridge at Kanne was destroyed in time by the Belgians. The Belgian army did try to regain control over the bridges and the fortress. Units of their 4th and 7th Division organised counter-actions, and even applied some of the few available Belgian light tanks. German air support, artillery and determined local defence repelled every Belgian effort, against huge costs to particularly the Belgian side.

The Germans had planned to reach their forces at the bridges and fortress at 1000 hours [x-hour plus 6]. It would be 11 May before the heavy units would actually reach the area. Pioneers and infantry had preceded them. At 2000 hour [10 May] the Germans managed to force a crossing at Kanne. Meanwhile the heavy pontoon bridge that was constructed north of the destroyed railway bridge over the Maas would not be ready before 0800 hours on the 11th. That's why the final German attack at Eben-Emael started much later, after which the fortress capitulated at 1120 hours [Dutch time] at the 11th. More than 24 hours later than the German plans had foreseen.

Of course these were all minor details in the entire plan Fall Gelb. In fact the slow German progress in the centre sector of the front contributed more to the German than the Allied case, but little did the Allies know. The Germans in fact intended to lure the French and British as deep as possible onto Belgian territory. The fact that the battle over the Albertcanal took them a little more than planned was no disaster, although in reality German planners were quite upset by the time loss along the Maas. The grand strategy of luring the Allies into Belgium stood besides the operational efforts to gain as much ground on the east bank of the Maas to concentrate and develop a large portion of the 6th Army. That the Germans wanted to be in control of the Albertcanal, and preferably on the first day of the invasion, is undisputed. The results of the set-back at Maastricht and the Albertcanal should not be regarded or overrated as a considerable achievement by the Dutch/Belgian forces, although the achievements of some Dutch units in Limburg with their limited armament can be regarded as distinctive and the same would apply for the relentless, brave attacks that Belgian units unleashed against German pockets. Basically all worked out in German advantage - which would have been the case either way, with or without the defence of the Maastricht sector.

Victims and losses

The battle in South-Limburg [sector Roosteren - Maastricht] had demanded the lives of 47 Dutch military personnel [2 officers, 7 NCO's, 38 corporals and soldiers]. There is no exact number for civilian losses.

The German losses are not known in detail - although from some scenes accurate figures are available. It is estimated that between 130-190 Germans died as a consequence of the fighting in the south, including those at the bridges at Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt, which were mostly inflicted by Belgian doing. It is certain that 186 soldiers lay buried in Ysselstein who were killed in May 1940 in Limburg. Some of these may have died from wounds suffered elsewhere.

It is confirmed from German material-states that 9 armoured cars and tanks were destroyed in Limburg. Also ten German airplanes [mainly Ju-52 and Ju-87] crashed in Zuid-Limburg.

Maas-line: Famous last words

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Bridge at Maastricht (may 1940)

The battle for the [Dutch] Maasline is one of the events that has never received adequate attention and respect of historians. It's a sad fate that lost battles usually share, particularly when the battles themselves are of the sacrificial kind, like the Maas-front was. If one would really study the many local fights that took place in the morning [and some in the afternoon] of the first day of the war, one can only pay tribute to the men who fought here - on both sides. The determination and bravery that was shown by the soldiers defending this thin line - and the bravery of many Germans during their numerous attempts to cross the defended river in their fragile boats and rafts - has been amazing and deserves our greatest military respect. Especially bearing in mind that elsewhere men showed a lot less determination whilst defending much better prepared and supported positions.

It is also remarkable that in fact at no point [where the Germans endeavoured to cross the river] the defences collapsed without being exposed to overwhelming enemy (fire)power. Actually one could not come up with even one exception along the entire Maas river-defence. The German battle reports show plenty of awe and respect for the Dutch defenders and this was clearly no courtesy or patching up of their own achievements this time.

The loss rates on German side had been considerably. Registered KIA on the 10th show a loss of at least 220 men in Brabant and the north of Limburg alone. The figures for South-Limburg are unknown, but estimated between 130-190 men. The amount of WIA must have been at least a threefold. This would add up to around 1,500 men KIA and WIA in order for the Germans to cross the thinly defended Maas-front. A considerable loss, bearing in mind that the Germans anticipated a walk over. On the other hand, it provided no operation gains to anyone on the Allied side, which leaves a mere bodycount to rate a defence against.

The appliance of treacherous methods, like the Brandenburger commando parties in disguise, shall have contributed to the German hopes to take the defences with relative ease. Fortunately these methods did not pay off in many instances. On the other hand, this methods of operation stealth commando's would be adopted by other nations and become sort of accepted warfare. They were in conflict with the rules of war, but so were massive bombardments of civil area's, which the Allied side would adopt in their strategy too. Shifting practises and morals, it leaves less room to be too harsh on German use of these methods in May 1940, we'd say.

Apart from the losses that the Germans suffered, their biggest worry was their logistical plan. The entire 6th Army had to cross the river Maas, and proceed [mainly] to the Belgian theatre. The relief of the German airlanding parties along the Albertcanal had been scheduled for the first hours of the war, and the push over the Albertcanal - in full force - was scheduled for the 10th as well. It all failed dramatically, and mainly due to the unexpected tough resistance [and destruction] they had met at the Maasfront.

In the end the delay that the Germans suffered mattered little. It put some sweat on the foreheads of a few German staff officers, it had them worried over exposed forces that were awaiting crossing the Maas in a densily military-populated zone along the river and it created concern that Allied counter measures could jeopardize the room necessary to manoeuvre on the east side of the Maas and Albert Canal. In the end, the Allies were utterly unable to materialise on the German set back - big time.

In the days to follow the Allied air forces would totally run empty on desperate but hopeless attempts to destroy the bridges across the Albert Canal and the artificial crossings at Maastricht. Many assault plane formations were literally blown from the sky by the overpresent Luftwaffe. And when an ocassional bomber managed to get through, they missed the designated targets with their bombs. When the 13th of May had come, and the Germans had managed to cross the Maas in the central region at Dinant and Sedan, the Maas front didn't matter any more. Emphasis had shifted much deeper into Belgium by then ...